What To Tell Your Client
When You Royally ☹️ Screw Up

First let's take a look at the initial steps you should take to face up to the blunder
and then we'll go deeper with some expert advice on how to handle screw ups with finesse

Co-Founder
& President at Bespectacled Editor

April 2018
It has happened to every business owner, especially in the world of consulting. Things are going great at first. You landed a big client, all your work is going smoothly and everyone is impressed with how on top of things you are. And then boom. Just like that, you screw up big time with something you can't just sweep under the rug.

Unfortunately, this situation is all too common in the world of consulting. No matter how great your intentions are, how many talents you have and how hard you work to get everything just right, you will inevitably make a mistake with a customer. The difference between success and failure is how you recover from them.

Reclaiming Your Credibility

Even the toughest client understands that mistakes will happen. But it's up to you to own up to your mistake, apologize for it and figure out how to make it right. Your credibility has been damaged, whether you overpromised and underdelivered, didn't make the right contacts or are three weeks behind deadline – you screwed up.

Hopefully it was a mistake made in good faith, meaning you tried your best and did all you could with good intentions but still missed the mark. If that's the case, it's up to you to make amends and try to do your best to minimize damage and make the mistake work for you. Preserving your credibility is key in these situations, so get to work on reputation triage right away.

Own Up

The first step is to look at the situation and be completely honest about how much of it is your fault. Sometimes mistakes happen because the client didn't provide the right information or made a blunder along the way, and sometimes the blame lies with both of you. But if it is truly a mistake that you are solely responsible for, then admit it and face up to the repercussions. It is powerful to say,
Look, this is what I did, and it's my mistake.
Clients end up respecting you more for having the ability to be humble, responsible and honest.

Say You're Sorry ‼️

This one hurts sometimes, especially when egos are involved, but if you screwed up, you really have to get it together and deliver a genuine apology. Forget the blame-transferring apology, too ("I'm sorry if you expected something different"). You want your client to know that you really understand what happened, why it went wrong, and where it started and that they can trust that it wasn't just a random blunder that you tried to cover up but couldn't.

If it was a failure on the part of multiple people, acknowledge that there is a process in place that needs to be fixed. Whatever the issue is, make them aware that you see it fully and are aware of the need for change.

Look for Improvements

Once you've spoken with your client, laid the blame game aside and wholeheartedly apologized, look for improvements that can keep this issue from ever happening again. As a consultant, it's basically your job to see problems and solve them in order to help businesses grow. There's no reason why you shouldn't be exercising those same skills in this situation.

  • Why did the problem occur?
  • Were you short staffed?
  • Did you not ask for the right information from the client?
  • Did you offer things that were actually not in the bandwidth of what you could deliver?
  • What was the screw up all about?

When you have a proper sense of what you have done wrong you can really move forward with improvements that can help you repair the damage more quickly and also better address other clients going forward.

☔️ Avoid Further Damage

Owning up to a mistake and finding ways to correct it are crucial. But if you continue to apologize or go overboard with trying to make reparations, you will just look like a schmuck. People make mistakes, and your role in it was problematic; however, you've acknowledged that and made the client feel comfortable that you are managing it and won't let it happen again.

Anything beyond that can do further damage to your credibility and undermine your reputation, and you want the mistake to be wrapped up as quickly as possible, not let it come back and haunt you.

Learn and Move On

Depending on what kind of mistake you made, you could be able to turn it into a valuable lesson for yourself, your company and others. Take stock of the different elements that played into your screw up and figure out how you could have done better.

Was it a communication error? Maybe that could open the door for other improvements in communication over time.
Internal processes shut down? Get your team together and figure out how you can avoid having it ever happen again.

There are all kinds of ways you can dial up your efforts after a screw up and move on to new jobs that you will complete successfully and with confidence.
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Handling Screw Ups with Finesse

It's important to go through the above steps after a big mistake in order to do the proper situation analysis and make sure you handle it professionally and with care. Howard Kilman, former VP of a $2 billion global consulting firm, says that mistakes are bound to happen – it's rare that everything goes picture perfect, and even with the best-laid plans, something will inevitably go wrong with a client at some point or another. Here are his insider tips for dealing with mistakes and making sure they don't cost you excess money or damage your street credit.

Discover the Problem Yourself

Kilman says the best way to minimize the harm from mistakes is to make sure that you sniff out the problem before the client does.
It's a completely different thing to have a client come to you and tell you that you messed up. If you have the right team and the best tripwires and processes set up, that should never have to happen. You never want them to find an error first because it will erode their trust, and it's really hard to start the conversation in a positive way after that.

Always Meet in Person

Kilman emphasizes that you have to meet with clients face to face when you're breaking bad news. "You have to see the whites of their eyes, sit down with them and earnestly explain what happened. NEVER try to do it over the phone and especially not over email." He also highlights the importance of meeting with the right person. "Generals talk to generals. You want to meet with the executive sponsor, the person heading up the project." If it is absolutely not an option to meet with a client (they are overseas or otherwise hard to reach) a video conference call is the next best option. You want to make sure you are in a position to use facial expressions and body language to connect with a client.

Approach with a Remedy

Don't go in and deliver bad news until you have a concrete and fast-acting solution. "I like to present three options and to make sure that the remedy fits the crime," he says. Make it as painless as you can for the client. Spend one-third of the time describing what went wrong, clearly and succinctly. And spend the other two-thirds showing them how you already have plans in place to fix it.

If they did everything right and you messed up, you want to have some ready-made approaches about how you're going to do as much as possible to stay as close to schedule and as on-budget as possible.

Make It Seamless

Think about it like a shopping experience. If you go buy a pair of shoes and for some reason they don't meet your needs – whether it's the wrong size, the lace broke, they don't go with your favorite jeans or what have you – you take them back to the store and explain why you would like a refund. If the store throws a fit and makes it a hassle to return them, you'll never shop there again. However, even if the shoes were damaged or there was some other screw up, if they make it quick and painless to do a return, you will remember that experience, not the damaged goods.

It is the same with consulting. If you treat your clients well and make things easy for them, you can turn a mistake into more business.
Consulting firms should always be selling trust. If you're selling by price, you're going to go out of business. It's not about making sure you get every dollar out of a deal, it's making sure that client wants to work with you again and is likely to refer you to other businesses.

Know When to Give Discounts

Kilman says to never give a discount for the sake of a discount.
Discounts are essential sometimes if you really screwed up. But if you manage it right, you can always ask for something in return – even when the discount is completely warranted. I always ask for a quote on their website if they are happy with the final outcome. Something to not only work in our favor but also remind them at the end of the project that we did good work despite the hiccup.

Don't Get Saddled with Indirect Costs

It's important to cover direct expenses that were incurred as a result of your mistake. If you lost a key employee during the project, met an unanticipated tech challenge, had a vendor fall through or experienced some other cost challenge, you want to cover the time and work incurred as a result of that loss. But if, for example, a client was expecting their sales to go up 30 percent as a result of your work, you don't want to be saddled with that extra cost.

Figure out the expected losses before you approach the client so you can have concrete numbers to offer.

✍️ Put Discounted Work on an Invoice

Kilman also emphasizes how important it is to never give away work without a clear record of what it is the client is receiving. "If I tell a client I have made a mistake and it's going to cost me 1,000 hours to fix it, I don't bill for those hours. But if I don't invoice them, they don't understand the value. I will invoice for 1,000 hours and then list it as a credit so they have a record of it."

Get Everything in Writing ⌨️

No matter what kind of remedy you come up with, make sure you have it all in writing, even if it's just an email stating,
As per our conversation, here is the option we decided to move forward with, the new schedule, billing, cost, etc. Do you have any concerns or corrections?
He recommends sending it with a read receipt on the email so you can be sure that all parties are on the same page.

Look, the consulting business is just like any other – there will be times when you fall slightly short of client expectations and times when you royally screw things up. There is no way to avoid it. The good news is that by handling the situation the right way, you can actually turn your screw up into a bonus for your business. Clients who trust and respect you for the way you were able to repair a situation are more likely to work with you again and to impress the quality of your work on others.

Don't look at mistakes as something to shy away from – use them as opportunities to shine by stepping up, correcting them and always prioritizing your relationships above everything else.